There’s a new musical in the works at Signature Theatre. Of course, that’s not surprising since the Tony Award-winning theatre has been a hotbed of contemporary musical theatre creativity for several years and a home for emerging writers seeking to hone and refine their latest works.
This latest attempt at ensuring the future of American musical theatre is a little different though – and it’s a good kind of different. The kind of different that should make lovers of new American musical theatre works take notice.
Brian Hill (book) and Neil Bartram’s (music and lyrics) newest creation, Spin – based on the Korean film Speedy Scandal – is being presented as part of Signature’s newest new works program, siglab, under the direction of Eric Schaeffer. As explained in the show program, the very mission-specific siglab allows the show writers to see their work in a workshop format before an audience after four weeks of rehearsals. The focus is not so much on creating a splashy, refined production.
In the case of Spin, there are limited though very polished ‘show-specific’ production values. Instead the set (Daniel Conway) from Signature’s previous production Company is used – it works, trust me – with some additional show-specific projections (Rocco Disanti), lighting designs (Chris Lee), sound designs (Lane Elms), and costumes (Kathleen Geldard). The less time spent on technical elements ensures more time can be spent on refining the actual book, music, and lyrics. I am happy to report that if the ‘product’ from the Spin development process is any indication of the program’s potential, I hope it stays around for a long time.
Spin’s plot is something you’d expect from a show derived from a popular movie. Evan Peterson (James Gardiner) had much success as a young sprite as a boyband member and later as a pop music solo act. His career dried up and now he’s the host of a low-budget, local TV singing talent competition. Instead of creating a new life for himself, he hooks up with a new girl on a regular basis and focuses on getting back to where he was earlier in life. Makalo (Carolyn Cole) is an avid fan of Evan’s show and calls in on a regular basis to provide her opinion on the acts. When it’s determined that the 20-something young mother to Jesse (an adorable yet non-cloying child performer Holden Browne) is actually Evan’s daughter, both have to try to figure out their new realities with varying degrees of struggle and success.
When Makalo – also a talented singer – enters the singing competition, Evan’s nemesis, gossip reporter Richard Riddle (a delectably smarmy Bobby Smith who gets to show off his song and dance man skills), who has nearly unparalleled ambition – with the help of Makalo’s ex-boyfriend photographer Danny (Stephen Russell Murray) – seeks to find out and reveal the truth about Makalo and Evan’s connection so that he can use it for his own personal gain. The question is will this ‘spin’ of the truth will compromise a happy ending for Evan and Makalo and those who love them?
Despite the familiarity of the soap opera-like plot, I will say that the book has at least one thing going for it that makes it easier to forget the tired clichés – well-written characters who have heart . Although some scenes get tiresome – particularly a lengthy yet amusing scene in which Evan tries to get young Jesse to remember to tell his schoolmates/teacher that he is his uncle rather than his grandfather, still Hill’s book shows promise.
It also allows Gardiner and Cole – who to some extent have been typecast in many a DC theatre production – to demonstrate their versatility. Gardiner (if one suspends belief about him looking like a pop star approaching or exceeding 40) is appropriately reckless in the beginning of the show and shows a range of emotions as he comes to grips with his past and his unpredictable future.
Cole – who has largely been tasked with portraying cartoon-like characters in the past – gives a well-rounded performance as a young mother who loves her son very much but is decidedly at a crossroads in figuring out how to develop a relationship with the child’s father who is not completely on board with the whole ‘being a parent’ thing.
Although some may claim Bartram’s score is derivative – a complaint often wielded at his (and Hill’s) very short-lived Broadway production The Story of My Life, which incidentally, coming from one who saw it, wasn’t as mediocre as many made it out to be – it is pretty catchy to listen to and is pretty wide-ranging to boot.
Closes July 27, 2013
4200 Campbell Avenue
2 hours, 5 minutes with 1 intermission
Tuesdays thru Sundays
Details and Tickets
While it’s true that it might prove beneficial to shorten or eliminate one or more of the songs in future productions because they don’t move the story along very well – the Fiddler on the Roof- inspired “Jesse’s Hungarian Dance” comes to mind in particular – they are exceedingly well-performed by the hugely talented cast.
A four piece band featuring a keyboard, guitar, bass and drums – under the direction of Gabriel Mangiante – also complements the overall stellar vocals nicely and adds even more energy to the proceedings. Although it’s recognized that this is a workshop production with the full orchestrations still to be completed, I’d hope that in future productions (such as the upcoming one in South Korea) additional instruments are used.
It’s July in DC and there’s certainly no shortage of theatre to see – particularly as the Capital Fringe Festival rages on and people continue to fall over themselves to see the national tour of The Book of Mormon at the Kennedy Center – but I invite those of you to take a chance on this emerging little gem of a musical at Signature. It’s well-worth the trip.
Spin by Brian Hill . Music and Lyrics by Neil Bartram Based on the film Speedy Scandal . Directed by Eric Schaeffer. Produced by Signature Theatre . Reviewed by Jennifer Perry.